As the High Holy Day period heads into its final stretch and with a second lockdown providing those of us in Israel ample time to reflect, I wanted to share a few of the messages that have helped me get through these challenging times, whether that’s a result of feeling down and confused personally or as part of our collective pandemic panic. Some are expansions on themes I’ve written about before; others are new. I find that repeating these as necessary, almost as “mantras,” can make a big difference.
• Seek balance over binary thinking. We have a tendency in times of trouble to think about the situation at hand as black or white – good or bad, positive or negative. Yet during this pandemic, as well as during my personal health challenges over the past several years, I’ve felt both fearful and full of joy – sometimes at the same time. Embracing this kind of non-binary thinking is tough – our brains are not evolutionarily wired for it. It means living more comfortably in the gray areas, acutely experiencing both pain and elation, and constantly striving to tip the balance ever so slightly toward the latter.
• Patience is a virtue. Beyond the well-worn cliché, I’ve found great value in not jumping to conclusions. Over the past months of COVID-19 paranoia (coronanoia?), who hasn’t worried that those sniffles, that unexpected cough or momentary feeling of fever was not the start of the virus with a capital V? It might well have been… or it could have been allergies, or a cashew gone down the wrong way. Waiting for a vaccine is an extreme exercise in patience – it may turn the tide, but it might not be available until well into next year, if at all. Can you wait a beat before going to, “Oh no, I’m going to catch COVID and die?” Practicing wonder statements – “I wonder if that’s something I should get checked out” – instead of straight-out worrying can short-circuit downward negative spirals.
• Everyone has some discomfort every day. I had a Zoom call with a new doctor last week. As I told him about my assorted ailments, he asked, “So, is your middle name Job?” referring to the Biblical character whose faith is tested with every affliction imaginable. It was meant to be a joke (a little too on-the-nose, if you ask me) but the truth is, everyone feels varying degrees of crappiness. Maybe not all the time, but to live – and especially, to grow older – comes with a price. For some it’s a bad back, for others cancer. For some, both. The body I had when I was 16 wasn’t perfect either.
• There are no shoulds. This was the very first life lesson I wrote about when I was diagnosed with cancer two and a half years ago and it’s just as relevant today. When I complained to my therapist, “This isn’t how my life is supposed to be,” she shot back, “Who said so?” The world as a whole is now experiencing a bad case of the shoulds – we should have used the past six months to prepare better for the second wave, we should never have opened up the schools all at once, we should have protected the elderly better. I’m not here to defend bad leadership, but it helps to remember there are no shoulds in life.
• Wash the dishes. When the world and/or one’s health seem out of control, I imagine a sink full of dishes. It’s my role at home to wash up after meals, so I’m not averse to getting soapy. But it can still be daunting after a Shabbat with lots of guests. (Remember guests?) If you’re methodical, though, the dishes eventually get done and the countertop is clean – for a moment. It’s a Sisyphean metaphor, of course: tomorrow there will be another meal and more mess, and you’ll have to start over from scratch. Still, knowing that you’ll get everything in order, even temporarily, helps keep one from getting too overwhelmed.
• Self-regulate. When I feel a kvetch coming on, repeating this mantra reminds me to think before expressing a gripe out loud. It’s as important for me as it is for those around me (my wife, my family and friends) who can get burned out if I grumble too much. It’s not that I need to go radio silent, just to turn down the volume a bit (on a radio whose anxiety level can never be completely “off”). Words that can reinforce this message include “postpone,” “pace yourself” and “consider what to say.” • Commit to the escalator. Getting through life day by day is a little like riding a department store escalator – the aim is to get to the top. Along the way, though, there are all kinds of mental concerns that pop up like shiny objects – those fancy luggage worries on the third floor or the fine cutlery distractions on the fourth. That’s OK – on some days you may have the time and inclination to hop off the escalator and take a look, even dwell there for a bit. Do you want the Samsonite spinner with two wheels or four? On other days, you may be more focused on the goal. Just know that, either way, when you’re done turning over the Royal Doulton knives, you’re committed to getting back on the escalator and continuing on your journey. After all, the restaurant there is supposed to be very high end. And I hear that it’s corona-free. The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.